‘A word changes into a sign, into a compilation of commas which mean something. You see, that is a rule… You follow the thread of these commas. To follow the thread of a conversation is a tautology, and, quite apart from the rule, there is the structure of the transformation of the word into a sign. This is what you must make visible, you must render the comma visible as something that is not stable, that is unstable, and these small white points stand on a background hatched with pens by another hand’
(Boetti quoted in Alighiero Boetti. Mettere al mondo il mondo, exh. cat., Frankfurt, 1998, p. 63).
An array of bright white commas punctuates a shimmering expanse of blue in Alighiero Boetti’s Immagine e Somiglianza (Image and Likeness). Executed in 1976, this work is from a series commenced in 1972, in which Boetti used the most ubiquitous of writing tools, a biro pen, and employed a variety of assistants to fill individual panels with small crosshatched lines. A culmination of the central themes and motifs in Boetti’s career, the ‘biro’ series raises questions concerning identity, authorship and language, while visualising the dichotomy between what the artist wishes to represent and what the viewer sees.
The small white commas that are scattered across the field of colour have a wealth of visual associations, appearing like astronomical constellations, falling raindrops from the sky, or the glistening surface of a blue ocean. Though seemingly dispersed randomly across the expansive blue field, each comma is in fact carefully arranged according to a self-reflexive, tautological linguistic system devised by Boetti. Each comma corresponds to a letter in the alphabet that runs down the left hand side of the work. When read from left to right, the commas denote a sequence of letters that spell out the title of the piece: Immagine e Somiglianza. The methodical linguistic system that governs the work reflects one of the central tenets of Boetti’s oeuvre: the concept of ‘ordine e disordine’ (order and disorder).
This philosophical principle, based on the concept that the world is in a constant state of flux between the forces of order and disorder, which together create a harmonious unity, underpinned much of Boetti’s art from the late 1960s onwards. In 1968, Boetti had produced a postcard entitled Gemelli (Twins), which was a montage of two photographs taken of him wearing the same outfit but with slightly different hairstyles. From the early 1970s, the artist further explored this idea of twinning by creating a double identity of himself as Alighiero e Boetti (Alighiero and Boetti). This sense of dualism is reinforced in this work itself: the title, Immagine e Somiglianza serves as one of the principle ideas of Boetti’s oeuvre. The work is self-reflexive, fusing together the dual concepts of the signifier and the signified through its visual structure.
In Immagine e Somiglianza the three panels that constitute the wide field of colour reveal a myriad of fluctuating rhythms, patterns and hues; the result of the individual style of each collaborator and an effect that Boetti actively encouraged. If the assistant worked with very dense strokes, even or uneven lines, or if the pen they were using ran out of ink, then the intensity and depth of the unifying colour fluctuated so that the quality of the resulting work progressively alters. Although Boetti left the execution of the work to other people, he invented and designed its structure, dividing the panels into square grids. Within Boetti’s own conceptual conception of the work, new, layered identities of authorship unfolded; a reflection of the artist’s inherently playful, multi-faceted practice.